2017 Champion Awardee Billie Mahoney Has Done It All
By Lisa Jo Sagolla
Is there anyone else in the dance world who has served as Luigi’s jazz-dance teaching assistant, produced her own television dance-talk show, taught Labanotation at Juilliard, and performed as a baton-twirling tap dancer on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” in personal appearances with Bob Hope, and on tour with Lionel Hampton? Probably not — which is what makes this year’s Dance/USA Champion Awardee Billie Mahoney unique. Her remarkable contributions to the practice and preservation of dance are equally divided between her accomplishments at two seemingly opposite ends of the dance spectrum: the commercial, popular-entertainment scene, and the rarefied, scholarly field of dance notation. Though one could argue that the twain met at one point, when Mahoney wrote the Labanotation score for Chubby Checker’s performance of the Twist, in the early 1960s.
Born in North Kansas City, Missouri, in 1927, Mahoney began performing as a child on local radio shows, then danced professionally at nightclubs, conventions, and military bases. After graduating from college, she moved to New York City where she advanced her career on the
variety stage and established a reputation as an expert in dance notation. In the wake of her father’s death, in 1992 Mahoney returned home to care for her mother and catalyzed a rebirth of tap-dance activity in Kansas City, teaching technique classes, organizing open jam sessions at the Uptown Arts Bar, and establishing the Billie Mahoney Dance Troupe, a performing company of women tappers over the age of 50. She also taught Labanotation for 17 years in the dance department at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and continued to produce episodes of “Dance On.” A talk show she initiated while in New York, “Dance On” features Mahoney interviewing dance luminaries and is broadcast three days a week on Kansas City’s local cable-television arts channel. Though approaching 90, Mahoney continues to do it all (with the exception of the notation course, which was eliminated from UMKC’s dance-degree curriculum requirements in 2015).
Revitalizing Kansas City’s Tap Community
“She’s my hero. I don’t know anyone else like her,” said acclaimed Kansas City-based tap dancer Lonnie McFadden. “Nobody in this city has done as much to perpetuate and make people aware of the art of tap dancing as Billie has. Not only is she a great performer, but she is an advocate, an ambassador for the art. She does so much to help make people like me, who tap dance, feel important.”
Speaking recently from her home in Kansas City, Mahoney recalled her beginnings as a dancer. “My mother sent me to dance lessons because she wanted me to be healthy. And when I came home from one of my lessons, when I was about five, I got the neighborhood kids together, charged them a penny apiece, and taught them the ballet positions. I studied at the Kelly Mack School, where they also taught us elocution so, from the time I was four years old, I did recitations on the radio. Then I was in the ‘Kansas City Kiddies Revue,’ a [radio] show they did every Saturday morning [in front of a live audience]. Sometimes I did a toe dance.” But lest you think she was doing classical ballet, Mahoney explained: “When I was seven, Mother figured I’d had ballet for two years and she wanted the teacher to put me on pointe, but the teacher wouldn’t do it — that was Mildred Lyons. So Mother took me to a different dance school where I did toe-tap and jazz-toe, that’s boogie-woogie on toes. I was never a classic ballet dancer, but I could jump around on my toes and do lots of spins. It wasn’t until I studied dance notation many years later that I really learned about ballet technique. It was through the notation that I learned that the foot slides into a point, for example, and that the effort into the ground takes you up.”
When Mahoney was 16 years old she began teaching at a dance studio in the neighboring city of Independence, Missouri. “It was during the war and the dance teacher there had married a serviceman and wanted to travel with him,” Mahoney explained. “I had started performing in the nightclubs when I was 14, so I was known by the booking agents. The dance teacher’s mother didn’t want to close the studio so she asked the agents to find her someone who could teach ballet, tap, acrobatics, and baton twirling. So when I was in my last year of high school, I got out of gym class and study hall, left school early and took the bus to Independence. I taught there starting at 4 p.m., five days a week, and all day on Saturdays. I was earning more money than my dad did working at the Kansas City Star.”
Mahoney went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas City (now UMKC), which granted her its Alumni Achievement Award in 1973. “I worked my way through college by dancing in the nightclubs and teaching dance to pre-schoolers,” she said. But that was the only time in her long teaching career that Mahoney taught children. “I’d hear the mothers saying, ‘Your dance teacher’s gonna take that out of you’ and I’m not here to do that,” she explained.
Upon graduating in 1949, Mahoney attended summer sessions at Colorado College where she studied modern dance with Hanya Holm and Alwin Nikolais, who introduced her to Choroscript, a form of dance notation. She spent the following summer at Connecticut College, studying with Doris Humphrey and José Limón. “They taught a course there in Laban’s system of notation. It wasn’t called Labanotation yet. And I took to it real well,” Mahoney remembered.
When she moved to New York City, in 1950, Mahoney continued her studies at the Dance Notation Bureau and eventually became a sought-after notator and certified teacher of Labanotation, which she taught for 15 years as a member of the Juilliard faculty. Mahoney was one of the team selected to notate the George Balanchine masterwork Agon. Her assignment was the Sarabande section of the first pas de trois (which was originally danced by Todd Bolender, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, from 1981 to 1995). “I’m in a Martha Swope picture that’s in Bernard Taper’s book on Balanchine,” said Mahoney. “I’m sitting between Stravinsky and Balanchine, pad and pencil in hand.”
Paralleling her development as a notator, Mahoney enjoyed an exciting career as a variety entertainer, booking club dates all across the country, touring in USO shows, and appearing on television variety shows. She was known for her nine-minute solo act incorporating tap dancing, acrobatics, and impressive twirling tricks with two batons. In 1953, booked at a club in Buffalo, she became intrigued by the jazz dancing done by a trio that was on the bill with her. “I had never seen anything like it before,” she recalled. Upon the jazz dancers’ recommendation, when she returned to New York Mahoney sought out classes with their choreographer, jazz dance teacher Jon Gregory. After each class “on paper towels, or whatever paper I had I would notate the combinations. To do that, I really had to break down and analyze the movements, so I really became proficient at the dancing of it.” Her proficiency led to her being asked to serve as Gregory’s teaching assistant.
From Broadway to Television
When Gregory left New York to take a position as dance director at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, Mahoney started studying with Luigi — who had just arrived in New York and was not yet the legendary jazz-dance teacher he would become — and she repeated the process that had occurred with Gregory. “I would analyze and notate Luigi’s classes and ended up doing the movements better than anyone else, so he asked me to assist him. I became his first teaching assistant,” she said. Mahoney also continued to work as a performer and appeared with Bob Fosse in the 1963 Off-Broadway City Center revival of Pal Joey. “Then when tap started making a comeback in New York, with Ruby Keeler coming to Broadway in No, No, Nanette [in 1971], the show dancers wanted to learn tap, so I began teaching that as well,” said Mahoney.
Struck with an arthritic condition and told she couldn’t dance for a year, Mahoney decided to go to graduate school. In 1982, at 55, she earned a master’s degree in media studies from the New School in New York City. “I’d been in front of the camera — dancing in films and television — so I wanted to know what goes on behind the camera, especially if I wasn’t going to be able to dance again. For a video class, I interned at the public access TV studios on 23rd Street. I worked on the ‘Phil Shapiro Live’ show. A couple of times, when [Shapiro] had to go out of town, he asked me to fill in as host of his program. It was a talk show, so I brought in some dancers as guests. I pulled them in from off the street — literally! You know the dancers I mean … the break dancers. Then I realized that maybe I could host a talk show of my own, all about dance.”
Using her Juilliard students as a volunteer crew, Mahoney launched her public-access cable-TV program “Dance On,” and wound up assembling a valuable archive of video-recorded conversations with distinguished dance-world figures, including Alvin Ailey, Anna Sokolow, Jose Greco, Erick Hawkins, Anna Halprin, and Bella Lewitsky. “To this date, I’ve done almost 400 shows,” she said. “I did it for 15 years in New York, and when my dad was still alive I would ship the big ¾-inch videotapes back to Kansas City and he would take them to the public access channel here, so they played in Kansas City for quite a while as well.” When Mahoney traveled around the country to teach summer intensives or attend conferences, she made it her practice to contact the local public access studio or university TV station and record programs there, interviewing the dancers, teachers, choreographers, or scholars who were in the area at the time. Though she received financial support from Capezio for three of the years she produced the show in New York, for most of the 35 years she has been making programs, she has funded them herself. About 100 of the episodes are housed in the Dance Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where they can be viewed free of charge.
Mike Strong has been the videographer and editor of the “Dance On” episodes Mahoney has been making since her return to Kansas City. “It actually surprises me how very well-known the show is here in Kansas City,” said Strong. “A lot of people watch it. What makes the program so engaging is that she presents the business of dancing to people who don’t know anything about that. It’s about the inside details, the daily life of dancers, how they do their work. It’s approachable. It’s something that dancers can really get into, but that non-dancers can also find very interesting.” (To watch a sample of Mahoney’s “Dance On” show, click here.)
While Mahoney’s immeasurable contributions to the Kansas City dance scene are priceless, she did receive a “pay back” of sorts in the form of what may have been the most thrilling performing experience of her later life. In 2000, tap great Gregory Hines appeared as a guest artist in a performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kansas City’s Folly Theater, an historic vaudeville and burlesque house. Aware of Mahoney’s importance in the local tap-dance community, from onstage at the Folly, Hines shouted, “Is Billie Mahoney in the audience?” To her astonishment, he then invited her to come up onstage and dance with him. “I went up and we did some improv — you know, we traded fours,” she explained. “Then he said, ‘Let’s do something together.’ So I suggested the Shim Sham Shimmy [the dance that all tappers know], and he said, ‘Yeah’. He set the tempo and we started to do the first step. Then I suddenly remembered there are two different versions of the Shim Sham. On the second step Leonard Reed does it one way and Honi Coles does it another — same step, just a different rhythm. As we approached the end of the first step I quickly whispered, ‘Leonard Reed or Honi Coles?’ He replied, ‘Honi Coles,’ and we hit right into it together without missing a beat.”
Yet it’s not solely within the professional dance community that Mahoney’s influence is felt. Her tap-dance classes and her performance troupe of avocational dancers over 50 bring dance experiences to a wide swath of the Kansas City population, particularly the elderly. “She brings tap to Kansas City in a way and with a breadth that no one else does,” said UMKC psychology professor Nancy Murdock, a member of Mahoney’s troupe. “We perform at Union Station, at nursing homes, at senior centers, we really get around and I think that’s very valuable.”
Mahoney is happy that her tap classes include “all sorts of people — two attorneys, a nurse, and a woman who heads the children’s program at one of the churches out here. Some had danced when they were younger and want to get back to it, and some are trying something new,” she said. Mahoney is a firm believer in the importance of dance activities for older people, which is why her professional practice now focuses so much on that population. “It keeps the mind working,” she explained, “which is just as important as keeping the body going.” It was for health reasons that she was originally sent to dance classes as a child, and she now devotes her time to utilizing dance to support the health and well-being of many others. Mahoney’s rich life in dance has come full circle.
Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken and Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances of the 1950s. She writes about dance and the arts for the Kansas City Star, Film Journal International, Bucks County Herald, and castalbumreviews.com, and was the dance columnist and a dance and theater critic for Back Stage for 14 years. The choreographer of more than 75 Off-Broadway, regional, summer stock, dinner theater, and university productions, she has written numerous encyclopedia entries, scholarly journal articles, and book chapters about musical-theater dancers and choreographers. Her writings appear in reference works such as American National Biography, International Dictionary of Modern Dance, Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, and Frank Sinatra: The Man, The Music, and The Legend. She also works as an arts-education curriculum and assessment consultant and teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She holds an Ed.D. in art education and an M.A. in dance education from Columbia University, and a B.A. in music education from the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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